The Recognitions

william gaddis

The Recognitions,’ published in 1955, is American author William Gaddis’s first novel.

The novel was poorly received initially, but Gaddis’s reputation grew, and the novel received belated fame as a masterpiece of American literature.

The story loosely follows the life of Wyatt Gwyon, a Calvinist minister’s son from rural New England. He initially plans to follow his father into the ministry, however, he is inspired to become a painter by ‘The Seven Deadly Sins,’ Bosch’s painting in his father’s possession. He leaves and travels to Europe to study painting. Discouraged by a corrupt critic and frustrated with his career he moves to New York. He meets Recktall Brown, a capitalistic collector and dealer of art, who makes a Faustian deal with him. Wyatt creates paintings in the style of Flemish and Dutch masters, forges their signature, and Brown will sell them as newly discovered antique originals.

Wyatt goes home only to find his father converted to Mithraism (a mysterious ancient Roman religion) and losing his mind. Back in New York, he tries to expose his forgeries, then travels to Spain where he visits the monastery where his mother was buried, restores old paintings, and tries to find himself in his search for authenticity. At the end, he moves on to live his life ‘deliberately.’

Interwoven are the stories of many other characters, among them Otto, a struggling writer, Esme, a muse, and Stanley, a musician. The epilogue follows their stories further. In the final scene Stanley achieves his goal by playing his work at the organ of the church of Fenestrula ‘pulling all the stops.’ The church collapses, killing him, yet ‘most of his work was recovered …, and is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard,though seldom played.’ The major part of the novel takes part in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Gaddis spent seven years writing The Recognitions. The novel began as a much shorter work and as an explicit parody of Goethe’s ‘Faust.’ During the period in which Gaddis was writing the novel, he travelled to Mexico, Central America and Europe. It was in Spain in 1948 that Gaddis read James Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough,’ in which Gaddis found the title for his novel. Frazer noted how Goethe’s ‘Faust’ originally came from the ‘Clementine Recognitions,’ a third-century theological tract. It was from this point on that Gaddis began to expand the novel. The novel was completed in 1949.

The complex book, full of characters whose ways intertwine, presents and is meant to be a challenging read; Gaddis said later ‘I do ask something of the reader and many reviewers say I ask too much . . . and as I say, it’s not reader-friendly. Though I think it is, and I think the reader gets satisfaction out of participating in, collaborating, if you will, with the writer, so that it ends up being between the reader and the page. . . . Why did we invent the printing press? Why do we, why are we literate? Because of the pleasure of being all alone, with a book, is one of the greatest pleasures.’ Jonathan Franzen stated that it was ‘by a comfortable margin, the most difficult book I ever voluntarily read…’ With its three parts it is organized like a triptych, each part contains many larger and smaller scenes, all interconnected. The themes of forgery, falsification, plagiarism, and mistaken identity abound.

There is extensive use of dialogues—Gaddis, like James Joyce, uses an em-dash to mark the beginning of speech, not standard quotation marks—and the reader may have to deduce who is talking by the speaking style, other behavior or attributes of the speaker, or the context. Some characters change their name in the course of the novel; thus, Wyatt Gwyon is called so in the beginning of the novel, then loses his name, only to be given—fraudulently—at the end the name of Stephen Asche, a Swiss national. Gaddis is a master of cumulative syntax, enriching his sentences by literary, cultural and religious allusions.

The character of Esme was inspired by painter Sheri Martinelli and Otto has been described as a self-deprecating portrait of the author. ‘Dick,’ a minister, is a reference to Richard Nixon.

The book was poorly received upon publication. But, over time, the work received not popularity, but gradual recognition. Franzen, who compared it to a ‘huge landscape painting of modern New York, peopled with hundreds of doomed but energetic little figures, executed on wood panels by Brueghel or Bosch…,’ believes that the disappointing reception negatively affected Gaddis’s future development as a novelist. Gaddis did not publish another novel for twenty years.

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